A game of Russian poulette
It was the ultimate cultural exchange, a Cordon Bleu cook sent to Moscow to pass trade secrets to the Russians. Her mission? To make five amazing dishes from a single scrawny chicken. Deborah Antel managed to do just that
Sunday 09 July 1995
Food hygiene is not a concept taught there, or even understood - though this was by no means the biggest problem. Before you could get food poisoning, you had to find the food. And then you had to cook it using equipment which should have been consigned to the scrapheap with the Czars.
Deborah Antel is not a cookery teacher, but she has all the skills that represent the cutting edge of modern cosmopolitan cooking in the West. She is a London-American (of French and Lithuanian extraction) who trained at London's French-owned Le Cordon Bleu Cookery School; she worked in London's best regional Italian restaurant, The River Cafe, before becoming assistant to the Swiss-born TV chef Anton Mosimann. Deborah's Russian connection is her American husband, Scott Antel, a solicitor now working for an international tax accountantcy firm in Moscow.
Observing that the West was making inroads into Russian food culture, Scott volunteered his wife to give a demonstration at the capital's oldest cookery school. It is hard to say who felt the greater culture shock, Mrs Antel or the Russians.
So here is the improving story of how a solitary Russian chicken was turned into five amazing dishes; an avgolemono soup, from stock made with the bones; breast of chicken, stuffed with a chicken mousse, poached; the other breast, smoked over jasmine tea, to be served cold in a salad; one leg of chicken, with a yoghurt cream sauce, spiced apple and cumin; the other leg, stuffed with mushrooms and nuts, roasted; and chicken sausages, made from the chicken mousse, wrapped in clingfilm and poached.
"It was very ambitious," says Deborah Antel. "The Russians have basically two ways of cooking chicken; boiling it to death or roasting it to death."
Prior to the demonstration, she makes a perfunctory review of Russian eating. Local restaurants which offer a limited range of dishes, usually boiled meat with boiled cabbage, are being cheerfully passed over for the new delights of McDonald's, Pizza Hut (no Kentucky Fried Chicken yet) and Tex-Mex outlets. Sandwich bars are regarded as a completely new and very exciting food trend, with thriving home delivery services.
Classic Russian food does live on, preserved in aspic in more than one sense. Mrs Antel is taken to the hugely expensive Metropole Hotel to wonder at over-elaborate set-pieces that evoke the hotels splendides of the 1930s, with butter sculptures, and whole sturgeon shining in aspic; indeed everything is covered with aspic, the pates and mousses, bowls of jellied meats and fish. Even the borscht, the classic Russian beetroot soup, is jellied. "It was all done very well," she says, "but it was like being in a time- warp. It looks magnificent, yet by our standards food like this is horrible to eat."
Apprehension sets in; it's the day before her demonstration. She makes her first visit to the culinary school, to see what she is going to need (an aspirin? Valium?). The principal, a large, homely and kindly lady in her fifties, conducts Deborah Antel to the Napoleonic kitchens. The oven is almost large enough to accommodate the 200 students. It has one temperature, not adjustable - very, very hot. The stove top is the other cooking medium, and has one temperature, very, very hot. OK. So, if you can't stand the heat ...
It would have been nice to have found some unfashionable, but wonderful, old copper saucepans. No chance. "All the pans were made of wretched, thin steel, and badly dented. None of them were flat. None of the lids fitted. The knives were terrible. They looked as if they'd fallen off the back of a lorry."
The school has no idea about kitchen hygiene. "Cooked food was piled in stockpots," says Deborah, "and left in the hot kitchen to cool - a sure way to kill people. This is how you breed salmonella and other food poisons."
Where do I wash my hands, she asked? A long way away, a very long way away. There's no water in the kitchen - and even if there was, it would be, well, Russian water. This isn't Deborah's first visit to Moscow. "I've had my fill of sick stomach here. I don't eat anything that might contain water which hasn't been boiled through. That means soups and sauces. I don't drink the water; I don't take ice."
So, she devises a strategy. Rule number one: go in early the next day and boil water, so she can have it sterilised and ready to rinse utensils, and her hands, in between preparation and cooking.
She has been asked to work with Russian ingredients; she soon discovers that jasmine tea, star anise and even fresh cream, are not numbered among them. But a chicken they can get. Hopefully. "I really do need a chicken," she says.
On the day of the demonstration she gets there early, and makes her acquaintance with a very large but skinny chicken. She boils up water and leaves it to cool. In come the cookery school teachers, 15 of them, mostly in their fifties, together with 10 of the more promising students.
They watch with amazement as she unveils her mise-en-place, the carefully prepared vegetables arranged in bowls and saucers as clinically as Anton Mosimann requires in his TV studio. They are no less surprised as she washes her hands, washes the chopping board and, dismembering the chicken into its component parts - bones, breasts, legs, trimmings - continues to wash everything in sight. Is this, perhaps, a religious ritual?
More surprises are in store for the onlookers. Having produced a stock from the bones, Deborah proceeds to skim off all the fat - and chuck it away. This is too much for the principal, peering closely over her half- glasses. She breaks into an expressive and voluble stream of Russian.
Translator: "She is very shocked. She says you are throwing away the best part. All the flavour is in the fat. Also, it is full of goodness."
Deborah: "No, no, no. Fat is very unhealthy: it makes you..." Her eyes take in the plump, rounded forms of her listeners. "Well, you know."
Over the next 312 hours, Deborah produces the five chicken dishes, and for good measure, profiteroles with chocolate sauce. Afterwards the principal talks through some of the Russian dishes. The pupils learn French techniques of sauce-making from reductions of stock, but Deborah shudders to see a soup with quarter of an inch of fat on top of it. "A heart attack on a plate," she breathes.
The best cuisine in the former Russian republics, the principal tells Deborah, comes from Georgia in the temperate south of the country. She describes a leg of lamb, boned and stuffed with nuts and raisins. "It's a wonderful dish," says Deborah, "except she uses half a pound of butter in the stuffing. So I suggested how you could get the same intensity of flavour with herb-seasoned oil mixed with just a little butter."
For the present, Moscow offers only a dispiriting choice between the (Western) new, fast food and the (Tsarist) very old and dated hotel style of cuisine. Until there is an upturn in the economy, we may not encounter good traditional country cooking, such as borscht spiked with sour cream or yoghurt, smoked fish salads, piroshki, little meat pastries, Kotlety a la Kiev (Chicken Kiev) and fruit kisels, poached berries, the juice thickened with potato flour. Below, we present Deborah Antel's version of a borscht, together with five other chicken recipes that she took to Russia, with love.
AVGOLEMONO SOUP WITH CARAMELISED LEMON ZEST
1 litre/134 pints well-flavoured chicken stock, ideally home-made
30g/1oz long-grain rice (rinse well)
15ml/1 tablespoon water
60g/2oz caster sugar
3 medium eggs
juice from the 2 lemons
salt and freshly ground pepper
fresh thyme, or lemon thyme if available
Bring the chicken stock to the boil and add the rice. Cover and cook over a moderate heat until the rice is tender but still slightly crunchy, about 20 minutes. Remove from the heat. Ladle about 250ml/8fl oz of the stock into a bowl, and reserve.
Zest the lemons with a peeler so that you have wide strips. Cut the zest into narrower strips, and reserve to caramelise as described below. Squeeze the juice from the two lemons and reserve.
Blanch the lemon zest in a little boiling water. Remove it from the water and pat dry.
Bring the sugar and water to the boil. Reduce the heat and continue to simmer until the syrup is a light golden colour. Place the zest in the mixture and coat well. Remove with tongs, separate and cool on a wire rack.
Meanwhile, beat the eggs, add the lemon juice to taste and beat together. Season well.
Slowly pour the reserved chicken stock (about one tablespoon at a time) into the mixture and whisk rapidly until all the ingredients are well blended. Add the mixture to the soup, remembering to stir constantly.
Garnish with the caramelised lemon zest and a few leaves of thyme (or lemon thyme). Check the seasoning is right, and serve immediately.
JASMINE-TEA SMOKED CHICKEN BREAST
4 x 125g/4oz chicken breasts
freshly ground black pepper
60g/2oz jasmine tea leaves
15g/12oz Lapsang Souchong tea leaves (optional)
5g/1 teaspoon sugar
30g/1oz plain rice
zest of 1 lemon
30ml/2 tablespoons water
15ml/1 tablespoon olive oil
Remove the skin from the chicken breasts and trim off all the sinew. Season well with salt and freshly ground pepper.
Line a wok with aluminium foil. Place the tea leaves, the sugar, the rice, the lemon zest and a sprinkling of water on the bottom of the wok. Sit a wire grid in the wok.
Brush the chicken breasts with the olive oil and place them on top of the wire grid. Cover the wok firmly and smoke the chicken over a high heat for approximately 8-10 minutes, or until a smoky golden colour is achieved.
Use the smoked chicken with salads and soups (such as the borscht recipe given below), or slice it very thinly and serve with herb-scented aioli or freshly made lemon-caper mayonnaise.
Note: You can use many different varieties of tea for this recipe. I usually blend the teas together to achieve a distinct flavour. This method will also do wonders for many types of fish. Whenever you are smoking food indoors, always make sure that the area is well ventilated.
CHICKEN BORSCHT WITH SMOKED CHICKEN
1 bunch fresh beetroot
1 shallot, peeled and finely diced
salt and freshly ground pepper
1.5 litres/212 pints well-flavoured chicken stock, ideally home-made
15ml/1 tablespoon sherry, or balsamic vinegar
90g/3oz red cabbage, shredded
a pinch of cumin or caraway seeds (optional)
125ml/4fl oz sour cream, at room temperature to avoid curdling
90g/3oz smoked chicken, cut into fine julienne strips (see jasmine tea- smoked chicken recipe above)
12 cucumber, seeded and finely diced
Wash the beets thoroughly and break off the stalks. Remove the leaves from the stalks. Cut the leaves into fine shreds and chop the stalks finely. Trim and shred the main part of the beets. Barely cover the beetroot, the leaves, the stalks and the shallot with cold water. Lightly season with salt and pepper and simmer, uncovered, for about 20 minutes.
Reserve roughly a tablespoon of the shredded beetroot for garnish. Continue to simmer the rest for another 20-25 minutes.
To serve hot: Use the sour cream as a garnish and swirl it on top of the soup. Add several strips of the smoked chicken, some of the reserved beetroot and a few sprigs of dill to each serving, and serve immediately.
To serve cold: Allow the soup to cool down completely after cooking, and be sure that the sour cream is at room temperature. Combine the two and mix well to blend them, and chill well. Garnish as above, adding some of the finely diced cucumber and extra dill if desired. Serve over shaved ice if possible.
Note: For a richer version of this dish, you can add 125ml/4fl oz of heavy cream to both the hot and cold soup if desired. Be sure that the cream is at room temperature if it is being added to hot soup, otherwise it will curdle. This will also increase the quantity of soup available.
STUFFED CHICKEN BREASTS WITH WALNUT SAUCE
4 x 125g/4oz) chicken breasts
salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 small carrot, 1 small onion,1 small stalk of celery, finely diced
a few sprigs of thyme and parsley
chives or spring onions, finely cut
For the chicken mousse:
150g/5oz poultry meat
15g/12oz freshly chopped herbs (parsley, tarragon, thyme, basil, chives or whatever is available)
375ml/12fl oz double cream
1 very small clove of garlic, crushed
1 egg white, whisked to a soft peak
salt, freshly ground pepper, freshly grated nutmeg
For the walnut sauce:
300ml/10fl oz well-flavoured chicken stock
60g/2oz walnuts, roughly chopped
60ml/2fl oz double cream, at room temperature
salt and freshly ground pepper
Remove the skin from the breasts, and trim off all the sinew. Remove the fillet (the small piece of tender meat inside a breast taken from a whole chicken, as opposed to one which is ready- prepared), and add to the mousse below. Butterfly the breasts carefully. Place each on a piece of clingfilm, and gently pound to flatten. Season well.
To make the chicken mousse: Finely mince the meat in a food processor, or by hand. Pass it through a fine sieve. Place the meat, herbs and garlic in a bowl over ice and vigorously mix in the cream, a little at a time. Once the mousse mixture begins to stiffen, stop, as it is ready. Gently fold in the egg white and season with salt, pepper and a little nutmeg. Keep over ice until ready to use.
Using two teaspoons, make a quenelle from the mousse and drop it into a small pan of boiling water. Adjust seasoning to taste.
Place each open breast on a piece of clingfilm large enough to wrap and seal the meat. Pipe the mousse in the centre of each breast and fold over the mousse. Wrap tightly in the clingfilm and gently prick a few tiny holes on top. Repeat with each breast. (Any surplus mousse can be used for other recipes such as chicken sausages; simply pipe it on to a piece of clingfilm, and twist the ends tightly to seal. Prick, and poach as instructed for the breast.)
Add the finely diced vegetables to a saucepan large enough for the four breasts. Fill with 500ml/ 16fl oz of water and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat and gently poach the breasts for 20 minutes. They should be firm and springy when done. Remove and carefully unwrap. Slice the meat on an angle so the mousse is slightly exposed.
To make the walnut sauce: Bring the stock to the boil. Reduce the heat and slowly whisk in the cream. Add the walnuts and simmer to reduce by half (reduce further if a thicker sauce is desired). Season, and spoon a little over each chicken breast. Garnish with chives or spring onions.
ROAST CHICKEN LEGS STUFFED WITH MUSHROOMS, WALNUTS AND SPICED APPLE SAUCE
4 chicken legs, thighs removed
1 shallot and 1 garlic clove, peeled and finely chopped
500g/16oz mushrooms, cleaned and finely chopped
salt and freshly ground pepper
15ml/1 tablespoon lemon juice
30g/1oz parsley, finely chopped
90g/3oz walnuts, roughly chopped
10ml/2 teaspoons melted butter, or olive oil (optional)
Pre-heat the oven to 450F/230C. Dry saute the shallot and the garlic in a non-stick pan until they are soft. Add the mushrooms, and season. Stir in the lemon juice and cook until almost dry. The mushrooms will release quite a lot of liquid. Remove from the heat and transfer to a colander to drain. Allow to cool.
Next, add the parsley, the walnuts and the melted butter or olive oil to the mushroom mixture, and stir to bind. Carefully pull the skin back from the chicken legs and remove the leg bones. Season the inside and stuff with the mushroom mixture. Pull the skin over the stuffing and gently reshape. Roast in a hot oven for 15-20 minutes or until the chicken is cooked through and golden in colour. Serve with spiced apple sauce (recipe below). Remove the skin if you wish.
SPICED APPLE SAUCE
4 dessert apples
30g/1oz unsalted butter
Spices: 3 cloves,1 cinnamon stick, pinch of cinnamon, freshly grated nutmeg, 1 star anise
5ml/1 teaspoon lemon juice
15ml/1 tablespoon honey
Peel, core and dice the apples. Heat the butter in a small saucepan and add all of the spices. Heat until their full aroma is released. Add the apples and lemon juice and saute until softened but still firm. Remove 1 tablespoon of apples for garnish. Continue cooking the remaining apples until they are very soft. Remove the spices and drizzle the honey over the apples. Mash gently with the back of a fork. Serve with the stuffed chicken legs and garnish with the reserved apple. !
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